Arts and Culture

The journey to pink pride: The ‘sickly sweet’ art of Duluth’s Cherry Koch

a person in costume poses on stairs
"For a long time, I had to hide lots of things about myself, and that kept me from doing things in public a lot, but now I just go for it," Cherry Koch says. Koch poses in one of their wearable art creations. Koch's work will be in a fashion show Aug. 24 at The Main, a LGBTQ+ bar and club in Superior, Wis.
Courtesy of Max Brunner

Cherry Koch (pronounced “Coke”) sits with a pink chapel on her lap in her Duluth apartment. The artist made the dollhouse-size structure, complete with stained-glass windows and shrubbery, for a new series of paintings called “Homebody.”

She’s been thinking a lot about the first time she encountered a work of art while growing up in what she describes as a small conservative town on the Iron Range.

“It was the art in my churches actually, like the stained glass and the paintings there,” she says. 

The Duluth-based Arrowhead Regional Arts Council recently awarded Koch a grant for “Homebody,” the project she will complete over the next two years. Koch, who uses both she/her and they/them pronouns, is building prop structures, mainly churches and homes, and photographing her friends holding them. She will then paint the photos, transforming them into surrealist portraits.

side by side of two paintings
The paintings "Burger Blues" and "Good News" recently went on view at Lizzards Art Gallery & Framing in downtown Duluth.
Courtesy of Cherry Koch

“The idea is that you carry your upbringing with you for your whole life,” Koch says.

The pink of the little chapel connects to all the pinks that saturate Koch’s home: bunny and cherub figurines, a cotton-candy colored hutch, an artwork of a donut with sprinkles and a tongue sticking out and a series of medieval-inspired art bonnets made by Koch. The tint is also cast over her oil paintings, portraits of friends and members of the local queer community.

“Sickly sweet is how I describe it,” Koch says.

With a rosy palette supported by hues of lilac, periwinkle and seafoam green, Koch explores themes of identity, trauma, toxic positivity and religion in her work. 

She also brings this aesthetic to the wearable art she creates: the bonnets as well as coats and other garments. Koch is now also preparing for a fashion show Aug. 24 at The Main, a LGBTQ+ bar and club in Superior, Wis. 

For a recent series completed with another Arrowhead grant, Koch painted portraits of — and did interviews with — five members of the trans community in the Twin Ports area, which was exhibited at Zeitgeist Arts this spring. 

The series, “Rug On Fire,” will go on view again for Duluth Superior Pride in August and September. Koch is co-curating the group show “The Gayest Art Show Ever” at the Prøve Gallery downtown which will open Aug. 30.

“I wanted to capture in this series, not just their physical likeness, but I also wanted to capture their soul and their essence through the interviews and through the locations that they are in, in the portraits,” Koch says. The interviews — which touch on the safety and mental health of trans people, queer community in Duluth and support for queer youth — can be read on Koch’s website

portrait of a person
The portrait "Ollie" from Cherry Koch's "Rug on Fire" series which features members of the trans community in the Twin Ports area.
Courtesy of Cherry Koch

She points to the portrait “Ollie” from the series.

“This is them in their bedroom, surrounded by all the notes and letters that people have written to them,” Koch says. “I really liked the result of this one because you can see their personal belongings are telling a story about their personality.”

The series title, “Rug On Fire,” comes from one of the interviews with the portrait subject, “Lo.” They told Koch, “Trans people used to be brushed under the rug. Now the rug is on fire.”

As for Koch’s own story, she says she grew up closeted and a “black sheep” on the Iron Range, where her parents run a resort and restaurant.

“I grew up in the woods. I grew up around a lot of sportsmen going on vacation,” she says. 

She found solace in art.

“I always knew that I was interested in art,” Koch says. “I would spend a lot of time in my room, or during class when I wasn’t supposed to be, just drawing and drawing and drawing.” 

She eventually went to study art at University of Wisconsin-Superior and graduated with a degree in studio art during the pandemic. This spring, she found her first gallery representation through Lizzards, a longtime art space in downtown Duluth, where some of her paintings are currently on view.

Koch says her preference for pink in life and art was also a journey. Growing up, she was a “tomboy” and rejected femininity.

“The idea of being a woman made me pretty uncomfortable,” Koch says. “I think where the biggest discomfort came was from the expectations that came with being a woman, like wanting to hold babies and going to bridal showers and all those like societal X Y Z’s that a woman is, and I didn't feel like that was what I was. So I really rejected anything that would have been girly.”

an artist stands next to a painting
Cherry Koch with their painting "In the Garden," a take on the Garden of Eden story. "It's a retelling of that story in a way that makes the taking of knowledge a positive thing."
Alex V. Cipolle | MPR News

Koch continues, “Then I grow up a little bit and I start realizing oh, my discomfort around womanhood isn’t with the colors or the aesthetics or anything like that. It was more discomfort with societal expectations. So, then I felt like I almost had been cheating myself by not doing things I was interested in.”

Koch says now she embraces the “girly” aesthetic, but it’s always with a wink and a twist.

With the series “Trauma Queen,” Koch painted people who appear melancholy, bored and isolated, sometimes tear-streaked or covered in blood. She says she was thinking about toxic positivity and how she often needed to mask her emotions or hide who she was growing up to feel safe. 

“In the Midwest, especially I think in the Iron Range, there's a culture of passiveness and avoiding difficult subjects and not talking about the things that need to be talked about,” Koch says.

Several pieces also use biblical iconography, expressing the ambivalence Koch feels about religion and Christianity.

The piece “In the Garden” features two of her friends intertwined, staring directly at the viewer; one holds a bunny stuffed animal in one hand and brings a gleaming red apple to their mouth with the other. 

“This painting was a reinterpretation of the story of the original sin in the Garden of Eden,” Koch says. “I always disliked that story because I thought it was funny, that knowledge is something we should strive for and why would it be wrong for someone to want knowledge.”

an artist poses with their work
Artist Cherry Koch at their Duluth apartment surrounded by their artworks and the chapel for their new "Homebody" series. "For a long time, I had to hide lots of things about myself, and that kept me from doing things in public a lot, but now I just go for it," Koch says.
Alex V. Cipolle | MPR News

While there are elements of satire and societal critique in much of Koch’s work, the more biting aspects are always buffered with a certain tenderness, the artist’s loving hand and the soft pink glow. She calls her paintings valentines to her friends and community.

“They wholeheartedly love me, and that was life-changing,” Koch says. “The safety, security and wholesomeness that are in some of my paintings — it’s that striving to be secure and to be held and to be uplifted.”

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.